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Palermo is the principal city and administrative seat of the autonomous region of Sicily, Italy as well as the capital of the Province of Palermo. Palermo is the fifth largest city in Italy with 660,460 inhabitants and hosts Sicily’s most important port. The city lies on a fertile plain that is called Conca D’Oro (golden shell).
Palermo was founded in the 8th century BC by Phoenician tradesmen around a natural harbour on the northwestern coast of Sicily. The Phoenician name for the city may have been Zîz, but Greeks called it Panormus, meaning all-port, because of its fine natural harbour. Palermo remained a Phoenician city until the First Punic War (264-241 BC), when Sicily fell under Roman rule. The Roman period was one of comparative calm, Palermo coming under the provincial administration of Syracuse. When the Roman Empire was split, Sicily and Palermo came under the rule of the Eastern Byzantine Empire.
By 878 all of Sicily, except for a few Byzantine enclaves near Taormina, was controlled by the Saracens. In 905 they captured those too. The Arab rulers moved Sicily’s capital to Palermo where it has been ever since. Under Muslim’s dominion, Palermo became an important commercial and cultural center; a flourishing city broadly known in all the Arab world, it is said to have more than 300 mosques. But they were also years of tolerance: Christians and Jews were permitted to follow their own credo. In 1060 the Normans launched a crusade against the Muslim emirate of Sicily, taking Palermo on January 10, 1072 and the whole island by 1091. The resulting blend of Norman and Arab culture fostered a unique hybrid style of architecture as can be seen in the Palatine Chapel, the Church San Giovanni degli Eremiti (see picture above) and the Zisa. In 1194 Sicily fell under the control of the Holy Roman Empire. Palermo was the preferred city of the Emperor Frederick II. After an interval of Angevin rule (1266-1282), Sicily came under the house of Aragon and later, in 1479, the kingdom of Spain.
Sicily’s unification (1734) with the Bourbon-ruled kingdom of Naples as the kingdom of the Two Sicilies inflicted a devastating blow on the elite of Palermo, as the city was reduced to just another provincial city, the royal court residing in Naples. Palermo rebelled in 1848 and held out against the Neapolitan crown until May 1849. The Italian Risorgimento and Sicily’s annexation (1860) to the kingdom of Italy gave Palermo a second chance. It was once again the administrative center of Sicily, and there was a certain economic and industrial development. Palermo survived almost the entire fascist period unscathed, but during the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943 it suffered heavy damage. The importance of Palermo got another boost when Sicily becamean autonomous region with extended self-rule (1947). But any improvement was thwarted by the rising power of the Mafia, which still today is a dramatic feature of the city, as well as the whole of Southern Italy.
How to get there
Palermo International Airport, Falcone-Borsellino Airport, Punta Raisi Airport (see photo): dedicated to Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, two anti-mafia judges killed by mafia in the early 90s, is located 32 km (19 miles) west of Palermo (Punta Raisi). Buses depart roughly every 30 minutes from the central railway station (via Piazza Ruggero Settimo) to the airport, and can sometimes take more than one hour, as during rush hours. It also can be reached by trains departing from Centrale, Notarbartolo and Francia.
Where to stay
The best hotel in Palermo, Grand Hotel Villa Igiea, built at the turn of the 20th century, is a remarkable example of Sicilian Art Nouveau. Surrounded by its splendid grounds perfumed with jasmines, it lies nearby a tourist harbor. Villa Igiea is furnished with 110 rooms and 6 prestigious suites. The views of the sea from the gardens are beautiful, and the staff is most accommodating.
Sights & Activities
Palermo is a city with monumental problems, but is also a city of almost three millennia of history, beautiful palaces and churches, colourful markets, marvelous food and a distinctive cultural identity. It is among the richest cities of monuments in Italy, and perhaps in the world. It is also the main center of Norman architecture in Europe.
- Palazzo dei Normanni/Cappella Palatina
- Galleria Regionale della Sicilia
- Museo Archeologico Regionale
- Catacombe dei Cappuccini
- La Kalsa
- The Cathedral of Palermo (a former mosque turned into a church from 1135)
- San Giovanni degli Eremiti (1132)
- Martorana (Santa Maria dell’Ammiragliato, 1143)
- San Cataldo (12th century)
- Santa Maria della Gangia
- San Giuseppe dei Teatini
- Oratorio di San Lorenzo
- Oratorio del Rosario
- Santa Teresa alla Kalsa derives its name from an Arab term meaning elected. The church constructed in 1686-1706 over the former emir’s residence is one of the most outstanding examples of Sicilian Baroque. It has a single, airy nave with stucco decorations from the early 18th century.
- Santa Maria dello Spasimo was built in 1506 and later turned into a hospital. For this temple Raphael painted his famous Sicilia’s Spasimo, now in the Museo del Prado of Madrid. The church today is a fascinating air-open ruin which occasionally houses exhibitions and musical shows.
Palaces and Museums
- Palazzo dei Normanni, probably built over an Arab fortress, is one of the most beautiful Italian palaces and a notable example of Norman architecture. It house the famous Cappella Palatina.
- Zisa (1160)
- Palazzo Chiaramonte
- Palazzo Abatellis, with the Regional Gallery, was built at the end of the 15th century for the prefect of the city, Francesco Abatellis. It is a lassive though elegant construction, in typical Catalan Gothic style, with Renaissance influences. The Gallery houses an Elenora of Aragon bust by Francesco Laurana (1471) and the Malvagna Tryptich (c. 1510) by Jan Gossaert and the famous Annunziata by Antonello da Messina.
- The Museo Archeologico Regionale is one the main museums of Italy. It includes numerous remains from Etruscan, Carthaginian, Roman and Hellenistic civilizations.
- Quattro Canti is a small place at the crossing of the ancient main roads (now: Corso Vittorio Emmanuele and Via Maqueda), dividing the town into its quarters. The palaces at the corner have diagonal baroque facades so that the place gets an almost octogonal form.
- Piazza Pretoria was planified in the 16th century near der Quattro Canti as a place for a manieristic fountain by Francesco Camilliani, the Fontana Pretoria.
- The Teatro Massimo (“Greatest Theater”) was opened in 1897. Closed for renovation from 1974 until 2000, it is now carefully restored and has an active schedule. Enrico Caruso sang in a performance of La Gioconda during the opening season, returning for Rigoletto at the very end of his career.
- The Teatro Politeama was built between 1867 and 1874. Nowadays, the town’s Gallery of Modern Art is accommodated here.
Other interesting sights
- The Cathedral has a heliometer (solar “observatory”) of 1690, one of a number built in Italy in the 17th and 18th centuries. The device itself is quite simple: a tiny hole in one of the minor domes acts as Pinhole camera, projecting an image of the sun onto the floor at solar noon (12:00 in winter,1:00pm in summer). There is a bronze line, the Meridiana, on the floor, running precisely N/S. The ends of the line mark the positions as the summer and winter solstices. Signs of the zodiac show the various other dates throughout the year.
- The Orto Botanico of Palermo, founded in 1785, is the largest in Italy with a surface of 10 ha.
- One site of interest is the Capuchin Catacombs, with many mummified corpses in varying degrees of preservation.
- Close to the city is 600 meter high Monte Pellegrino, with spectacular views of the city, surrounding mountains and the ocean. In his book, “Travels in Italy”, Goethe described Monte Pellegrino as the most beautiful promontory in the world.
Where to eat
At local markets or paninoteche, it is worth a try of panelle di ceci (deep-fried chickpea fritters), muffolette (hot bread buns served with oil and sesame seeds), guastelle (buns stuffed with cheese, veal spleen and pork fat), sfincione (thick pizza with tomato, anchovies, onions, artichokes and bread-crumbs), focaccia farcita (thin pizza crust with different ingredients on top), and arancini di riso (deep-fried rice balls filled with meat-sauce or butter).
Il Mulinazzo, a restaurant with two Michelin stars in Villafrati, just outside Palermo, is worth the 40-minute drive from downtown Palermo. At Il Mulinazzo, you’ll dine in ultimate comfort and be attended to by the region’s best-trained waitstaff. The menu at Il Mulinazzo has many French touches, but its featured dishes, like purée of fava beans enriched with scampi, ricotta and extra virgin olive oil, are taken from Sicilian tradition.
Address: Bolognetta Nord, Villafrati, Outside Palermo
Tel.: (091) 872 48 70
Scuderia is one of the best restaurants in Palermo. Some of the dishes on the menu include a mixed grill of fresh vegetables with a healthy dose of a Sicilian cheese called caciocavallo; involtini (roulade) of eggplant or veal; risotto with seafood; and maccheroni Nettuno (pasta stuffed with swordfish, eggplant, and tomato sauce). Everything is beautifully presented and served with typical Sicilian flair.
Address: Viale del Fante 9, Palermo
Tel.: (091) 52 03 23
Santandrea, in Piazzetta Sant’Andrea, and Gourmands, at 37 Via della Libertà, serve typical Sicilian dishes, while at Trattoria Biondo in Via Carducci, near the Politeama Theater, you can try Palermitan dishes, and, in season, mushroom based recipes. In Mondello, the Vecchia Tonnara, in Via Mondello 76, was used for processing tuna; today it houses a restaurant that specializes in fish and seafood.
A local favorite since 1834, theAntica Focacceria San Francesco (found in in the Palazzo Reale/Monte di Pietà distric) serves focaccia farcita (flat pizza-dough baked with different fillings on the top), arancini di riso, torte salate (savoury “cake”), fried ricotta cheese, and sfincione. If you are in the vicinity of Viale della Libertà, try one of the panini (sandwiches), pastries, and ice creams from Antico Caffè Spiannato (Via Principe di Belmonte 115), while sitting at a table inside or outside.
Cafés & Pastry shops
Two names stand out from the myriad of excellent pastry shops offering sinfully delicious treats: Oscar, at 39 Via Mariano Migliaccio, boasts its best-known specialty the Torta Devil (devil’s cake); while Bar Costa, at 15 Via G. D’Annunzio, specializes in a variety of delicate biscuits, cakes and pastries – particularly orange and lemon mousses. Other places include: Pasticceria Mazzara, 15 Via Generale Magliocco, on the corner of Piazza Ungheria, once frequented by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of The Leopard. Mouth-watering cakes and pastries are served also at Caffè Ateneo, 170 Via Maqueda and at Pasticceria Alba, 7 Piazza Don Bosco.
Shopping & Markets
Where to shop – The most elegant shops are concentrated in the new part of the town along Via Libertà and the main streets of the city (Via Roma and Via Maqueda). Via Principe di Belmonte has been pedestrianised to facilitate window shopping. The central section has been planted with trees to provide shade for the tables spilling from such bars as the Antico Caffè, the Gelateria Liberty, Au Domino (crêperie and bistrot) and the Café de Paris. Opening hours – Most shops remain closed on Monday mornings (food shops close on Wednesday afternoons). Shops open between 9am to 1pm and from 3.30pm to 7.30pm (4pm to 8pm on Saturday afternoons).
Local markets – The most colorful and picturesque markets are, without a doubt, those selling food with their array of multicolored awnings and their brightly painted stalls decked with assortments of fruit, vegetables or fish and lit with bare light-bulbs. The Vucciria market is certainly Palermo’s most famous, always bustling with color and noise, stacked high with food supplies. It trades every morning (except Sunday) until 2pm, set back from the waterfront in Via Cassari-Argenteria and the surrounding area (stretching as far as Piazza San Domenico). The origin of its name is controversial: some maintain that it comes from the French term boucherie (meat), whereas for others it refers to the deafening clamour of the voices of the traders drawing attention to their wares. Other lively food markets include the Ballarò which is held in the area around Piazza del Carmine, and the Capo (the first, more picturesque section is round Piazza Beati Paoli; the clothing stalls congregate in Via Sant’Agostino and Via Bandiera). The main clothes markets, however, are those known as Casa Professa and Lattarini (between Piazza Borsa and Piazza Revoluzione). A flea market (located in Piazza Peranni-Papireto) offers antique and modern bric-a-brac, while the Calderia market, in the street of the same name, sells hand-made metal objects and artifacts.
Palermo was first colonized by Phoenician traders in the 6th century BC, but it was their descendants, the Carthaginians, who built the important fortress here that caught the covetous eye of the Romans. Following the First Punic War, the Romans took control of the city in the 3rd century BC.
Several Vandal invasions later, in the ninth century, Sicily was settled by Arabs, who made the country an emirate and established Palermo as a showpiece capital that rivaled both Cordoba and Cairo in Asian splendor. Nestled in the fertile Conca d’Oro (Golden Conch), full of orange, lemon, and carob groves, and enclosed by limestone hills, Palermo became a magical world of palaces and mosques, minarets and palm trees.
The patron saint of Palermo is Santa Rosalia, who is still widely revered. On the 14th of July, people in Palermo celebrate the “Festino”, which is the most important religious event of the year. The Festino is a procession in the main street of Palermo to remember the miracle attributed to Santa Rosalia who, it is believed, freed the city from the Black Death in 1624. The cave where the bones of Santa Rosalia were discovered is on Monte Pellegrino; when her relics were carried around the city three times, the plague was lifted. There is a Santuario marking the spot and can be reached via a scenic bus ride from the city below.
Before 1624 Palermo had four patron saints, one for each of the four major parts of the city. They were Saint Agatha, Saint Christina, Saint Ninfa and Saint Oliva.
Also, Saint Lucy is honored with a peculiar celebration, during which inhabitants of Palermo do not ‘eat anything made with flour (usually replaced with rice), and prepare a special dish called cuccia.
Monte Pellegrino (9 miles/14km north) – The road up to Monte Pellegrino offers magnificent views over Palermo and the Conca d’Oro; in places it is crossed by a wide, much steeper, paved path dating form the 1600s (used by those going up on foot). As the road climbs, it passes the Castello Utveggio, a massive pink construction that can also be seen from the city It then continues on to the Santuario di Santa Rosalia dating from the 17th century and built around the cave where, according to legend, St. Rosalie lived. It is also said that this was where her bones were found in 1624 and that these, when carried in procession down through the city, liberated it from the plague. Following this event, Santa Rosalia became the patron saint of Palermo. The Cave is covered with zinc guttering which helps collect the dripping water from the walls, as this is considered to have miraculous properties.
Further on up, the road comes to a look-out point which, though dominated by a statue of the saint, provides breathtaking views out to sea.
Grotte dell’Addaura – Between Mondello and Arenella, off the Lungomare Cristoforo Colombo, it is level with the road turning for Punta di Priola. A series of caves among the lower slopes of Monte Pellegrino have revealed that they were inhabited during Palaeolithic times (5th millenium BC). In one of these caves have been found various extraordinary rock engravings, possibly associated with some initiation ceremony of a ritual. The inscriptions consist of animals and a group of nine human figures wearing strange head-dresses, standing in a circle around another two figures, arching their bodies and holding their arms stretched out in front of them, almost as if they are dancing.
Mondello (7 miles/11 km north) – Passing below the tall rugged slopes of Monte Pellegrino, this area, now an elegant holiday resort, was “discovered” at the beginning of the century by well-to-do Palermitans who decided that it provided the ideal conditions for a weekend away or for a short seaside holiday. As a result, large numbers of elegant villas sprang up (many of which still stand) along the sea front, the length of Viale Principe Scalea (Villa Magherita at no 36), Via Margherita di Savoia (especially at the beginning) or in the streets behind, like No. 7 Via Cà da Mosto (Villino Lentini).
The sea front promenade is graced with a picturesque bathing establishment dating back to the beginning of this century, which continues to function as such (although part of it has been converted into a restaurant and serves a private club).
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